Climate Activism - Lessons from the Street for Employee Activists


After a few years of modesty, climate activism is back as a disruptive force in the public arena. Amplified through acts of civil disobedience, soup throwing and non-violent resistance, activist groups are forcing us to have uncomfortable conversations about the lack of real action on the climate crisis and linked social injustice.


The Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, the Girl with the Pearl Earing. A lot of people in society have responded saying these paintings have nothing to do with the climate crisis. But whatever you think about the form and targeting "defenceless paintings", the climate crisis is now on the front pages of the global media.


And guess what? Climate activism isn't just on the streets. In their new book, professors Annika Skögland and Steffen Böhm argue that

"activism has transformed and is now going on everywhere - inside and across small and large corporations, local and national state agencies, NGOs of all sizes, and local producer and consumer groups in towns and villages."

While not everyone identifies with the term activism, it's clear that people are coming together in all parts of organisations to drive positive change on social and environmental issues. What happens when employees use their positions to influence their organisations? What can we learn from what’s happening on the streets and in the public's response to disruption?


Disrupting the status quo: from the streets to your organization.

We took a moment to analyze the general narrative that played out in society and transported it to an organizational setting. Taking the soup throwing actions in museums as a business case, we saw all kinds of parallels that can help employee activists map out their path for transformational change.


We had some fun and made an analysis, mirroring the responses on a societal level to what often happens in organisations. Take a look at the overview and identify the key players in your organisations.


EXAMPLE FROM 'JUST STOP OIL' ACTIVISTS OCT. 2022

Societal actors

Actors in your organisation

Initial / current role and response

Desired response

1.

Climate activists

Employee activists

Have the courage to demand (in non-violent way) that things change.

Keep challenging and are heard through less disruptive means.

2.

Museums

Middle management

Says they are on your side, but feel attacked and tell you your behaviour is unprofessional

Join the people who raise their voice and use their influence, assets, resources to support.

3.

Art / Nature

Your vision of a better world

Present, but has no voice.

Is visible and heard

4.

Media

Internal communi-cation channels

Amplifies messages that suits them. Supposedly neutral, but usually biased

Questions their own role and while never neutral offers all voices and perspectives a platform. and aims to be neutral

5.

Influencers / commentator

Informal leaders, mentors, allies and challengers

Raise their own profile and build following by taking a stand. For or against

Lead conversations that are less polarizing. Understanding different perspectives.

6.

Government / politicians

Management board

Reactive to (internal/external) pressures. Gives advice on how to do better, but takes no real action.

​Needs no pressure required to acknowledge role of leadership.

7.

The message (stop oil)

Your message for change

Gets snowed under and takes time to make it to the table.

You are at the table and heard even invited to meetings


Take-aways for activist employees:


1. Employees as activists:

When challenging the status quo comes from a 'good place', people will be able to see beyond the act and consider the message. Consider what is it you are for, not just what you are against. Think about the answers you might have, not only the questions. How could your organization do better? How could a decision or solution improve? And what are they already doing right?


And remember, speaking up can be risky. Your organization is not a democratic space. Your safety as an employee depends on what worker rights have been formalized, and on your company culture and leadership practices. Is your organisation a culture where voices of difference are encouraged? Are there any ‘safe spaces’ where you can experiment and find like-minded individuals or group support?


2. Middle management and keepers of the norm:

Museums have a role to take care of the ‘heritage’ or in a company’s case managers are appointed to carry through policies and reach targets. Managers who defend these might “be on your side”, and they are also responsible for maintaining the status quo. There are few managers who will risk their position of authority and openly embrace your action as an act of leadership.


That said, while their role requires them to double down on behaviour, as people they probably sympathise with your message. So, how do you become allies? Consider different approaches. Sometimes conflict is necessary to start the conversation at a different level. Do be aware that you are not synonymous with the message. Call people out on tactics like ‘tone-policing’ (if only you’d said it differently), while also taking time to listen to them. You do not have a monopoly on the truth.


3. Your purpose or vision

Often the collective and shared vision of a future is vulnerable and people want to take care of it and protect it. This is what brings people together. Make sure you express your vision in a positive, inclusive manner. Inviting everyone to be a part of it. Make it come alive, so that people will start rooting for it.


4. Communication channels as amplifiers

We like to think that the media is neutral, but you need to be critical. They are part of the status quo. The same goes for company channels. which exist to inform, and nudge desired company behaviour, habits and culture. Internal digital comms platforms offer employees the opportunity to raise issues and create communities, but they are also public and expose people to group think. Make sure you map these channels and connect with the people responsible for them.


Think about your messaging, so that when you are given a platform, you have a single, strong message and a clear call to action. Be creative and have a sense of humour. Its fun to share positive, funny things with your colleagues and friends. Connect to employee resource and affinity groups. Some of them are organized and have created their own channels.


5. Allies and challengers as mentors and influencers

There are formal and informal leaders in any organisation. These people can really help you grow your impact. Both in their roles as challengers and allies. They often become more visible as leaders by having an opinion about your action. Make sure you understand who these people are. Map your stakeholders and understand their influence and whether they agree/disagree with your vision. Unexpected (strategic) allies and mentors are invaluable to amplify your message and get access to new people.


6. Your management board and shareholders

People in places of power hold the key to driving radical change. Until they are targeted directly and see the potential risk of inaction, their responses will be to uphold the norms and be reactive. What you see with politicians holds true for most boards. They look up, not down. They are concerned about who appoints them and their role is to keep them and their shareholders happy.

Try to find an ally on your board, or with your shareholders. And make sure that your story contains facts and figures and explains how your better future makes business sense too.


7. Your message

While the message to Just Stop Oil was snowed under by public discontent to form – and no oil companies actually took part in any of the talks – framing the blame for the crisis on a single, doable task helped people understand what needs to be done. Of course, solving the climate crisis isn’t that simple, but your message needs to build a bridge between the desired future and the current situation. It needs to give people something concrete. A behavioural change that is significant.


Conclusion

We look at transformational change with a systems lens. This means seeing past individuals in organisations and looking at roles people play in organisations within a greater story. By taking a step back and understanding the actors in your organisation from this perspective, you can see past the individual and be more strategic.


This is one element of what we call an activist mindset in organisations. If you want to know more about employee activism and use activist mindset and tools to increase support for your transformational change, then check out our course.


In the meantime, we'll be updating you with stories from the real world and courageous people taking action to build an inclusive, just and sustainable world.




Author: Tessa Wernink, co-founder, trainer and coach at the Undercover Activist.